Monday, December 12, 2011

Jopok Week: Conclusion and Korean Gangster Films on the Horizon

Kang Ji-hwan and So Ji-sub in Rough Cut (2008)

The gangster film has been a staple since the early days of cinema.  It's heady, larger-than-life blend of action, drama, and thriller tropes as well as the myriad of themes it can explore, makes it a natural fit for the silver screen.  Throughout the last century the genre has travelled across the globe, peaking in different places at different times.  For the last 15 years, one of the most prolific producers of gangster pictures has been Korea:  arguably it has been the most successful.  In their home market, Korean gangster films have enjoyed unprecedented and sustained popularity though the genre has changed in the industry over time.  

One of the aspects that was most discussed this week (chiefly by Connor McMorran and Darcy Paquet) was the Korean gangster comedy, which reached an early high in 2001, when six of the top 10 films of the year were mobster themed features.  Much was said about the reasons for their enormous success as well as the inherent flaws within the sub-genre which lead in part to its early demise.  They eventually receded from the marquees near the end of the decade.  While the odd one is still made today, they do not attract near the same audiences as they did.

Kim Yun-seok in The Yellow Sea (2010)

Darker thrillers with gangster tropes may not have had the same dominance as their comedy counterparts had in certain parts of the last decade but their prevalence and popularity has remained constant throughout the resurgence of Korean cinema.  They have been used as a template to explore the changing landscape and society of Korea as it has become a developed nation and also as a means to consider questions regarding the Korean male in modern times.  In her piece, Rowena Santos Aquino gave us a lot to think about regarding masculinity and beauty in 'jopok' films.

A lot of ground has been covered during 'Jopok Week' and I am absolutely thrilled about the positive response that the many reviews, features, and analyses have received.  Including these closing comments, 17 articles have been published as part of Jopok Week, totaling an enormous 22,500 words.

Cha In-pyo in Mokpo, Gangster's Paradise (2003)

I want to express my sincere gratitude to Connor McMorran, Rowena Santos Aquino, Kieran Tully, and Darcy Paquet who contributed such wonderful pieces on various aspects of Korean gangster cinema.  A huge thank you is also in order for every one of you that took part in, or helped promote the features through umpteen tweets, likes, follows, shares, subscribes, or comments on the various social media platforms.  And of course none of this would have been possible without you, the reader, so thank you so much for taking the time to visit!

After the success of this week, I am keen to do a similar feature in the near future.  Perhaps we can take a look at horror or melodrama in Korean cinema next, or even expand on 'Jopok Week' a year down the line.  I hope you will join me when the next feature does get underway and if you any ideas or would like to collaborate on something, do not hesitate to get in touch (pierceconran [at] gmail [dot] com)!  

I will leave you with a recap of this week's articles and a taste of what's to come for 'jopok' films in 2012:

(by Kieran Tully)


Too Many Villains

The debut film from Kim Harry, who was previously an assistant director on Ha Yu's brilliant A Dirty Carnival (2006), will be released next week in Korea and I think it looks fantastic.  In Too Many Villains, Kim Joon-bae plays an ex-gang member trying to gain custody of his daughter.  Kim is a veteran and has been exceptional in a number of small roles including Romantic Heaven (2011) and last year's Moss but judging by the trailer, this may be a big break for him and I hope it will be.  His look, swagger, and especially his voice feel spot on for this type of role.  I have a good feeling about this one and I hope I get a chance to see it early in 2012.  One of my must-sees for next year!

Nameless Gangster

Yoon Jong-bin's third film (he's still only 32) is a gangster tale set in the early 90s starring Choi Min-sik (Oldboy, 2003; I Saw the Devil, 2010) and Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser, 2008; The Yellow Sea, 2010).  Nameless Gangster has a great look and feel to it and Choi, a consummate actor, seems to have completely immersed himself in the role.  There have been a number of great stills relying on the evocative force of the production design and costumes, which works for me.  Comedy looks to be part of the mix but this is a far cry from the gangster comedies we've been discussing this week.  The trailer looks promising and this is one the films I'm most curious about in 2012. 

The Thieves

Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jeong-jae, Oh Dal-su, and Jeon Ji-hyeon in The Thieves

Choi Dong-hoon's fourth feature has blockbuster written all over it.  The big cast features Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Jeon Ji-hyeon (aka Gianna Jun), Lee Jeong-jae, and Oh Dal-su, and the production was pan-asian and included shoots in Macau.  The Thieves (formerly known as The Professionals) is Choi's third film dealing with professional thieves/gamblers and while no trailers or posters have been revealed yet, the pedigree looks strong.  Kim Yun-seok is on such a roll that it's hard to imagine that he won't bring it home again here.

Kim Yun-seok in The Thieves

That's it for 'Jopok Week', hope you've enjoyed it and thanks again!

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Korean Box Office Update (12/09-12/11, 2011)

Weekend of December 9-11:

Title Release Date Weekend Total
1 Spellbound 12/1/11 590,232 1,391,938
2 The Adventures of Tintin (us) 12/7/11 407,330 477,771
3 Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I (us) 11/30/11 249,656 1,227,325
4 Arthur Christmas (us) 11/25/11 124,832 520,821
5 SIU 11/24/11 110,119 1,041,647
6 Punch 10/20/11 97,314 5,226,346
7 Blitz (us) 12/8/11 31,609 45,831
8 Sunday Punch 12/7/11 28,568 39,733
9 Real Steel (us) 10/12/11 23,977 3,568,936
10 Moneyball (us) 11/17/11 9,767 631,845
- Gilsotteum (1985)
1,692 1,692
- The Sleep Deeper Than Death (1979)
1,342 1,798
- Life Is Peachy 12/08/11 877 1,521
- The Forgotten Bag 11/17/11 624 5,339
- Dancing Cat 11/17/11 621 11,016

Another week at the 2011 Korean box office and another runaway word of mouth hit!  The year has seen quite its share of sleeper hits starting with Detective K and Clash of the Families in the first quarter before Sunny began its extraordinary run in May.  War of the Arrows, the least-awaited summer blockbuster became the year's biggest hit and the fall produced the controversial Silenced, the still-playing crowd-pleaser Punch, and now it looks as though the sophomore Spellbound may join their ranks.  A healthy 1.71 million tickets were sold this weekend, a slight uptick on last year's 1.67 and, encouragingly, the market share jumped 8 points to 49% despite only four Korean films on the chart.  Very impressive given the time of year, a season typically dominated by Hollywood holiday tentpoles.

The new No. 1 was the comedy/romance/horror blend Spellbound which, after a strong start last week, grew nearly 25% to 590,232.  The result is proof of the enduring popularity of the multi-genre pics in Korea and is reminiscent of last year's similar hit, the Cha Tae-hyun starring Hello Ghost, which ended its run with a little over 3 million admissions.  If Spellbound continues to generate good word of mouth it could easily surpass that but competition from American imports will be significant throughout December.

The Steven Spielberg-directed and Peter Jackson-produced motion capture animation Tintin opened in an enormous amount of theaters but only managed a 407,330 weekend.  A decent start but nothing to write home about.  The picture has had good reviews so perhaps it will benefit from good word of mouth down the line but this is far from certain.

Last week's No. 1, the fourth installment in the Twilight franchise, as expected saw much of its business eb away.  Though its sub-40% drop is not as devastating as it could have been.  At this rate it is unlikely to match its predecessor's final tally in Korea.  Arthur Christmas stayed relatively strong as it barely dropped, adding 124,832 to its total, though it started out with such a small figure that these small drops aren't making a hit out of it.

SIU lost about half of its business for a 110,119 weekend but managed to cross the one million admissions mark in the process though this will be its only major milestone.  Word of mouth hit Punch fell about 35% to 97,314 in its eighth week as it winds down it remarkable run.  The six million admission mark is probably out of reach.

Blitz, a Jason Statham action film that went straight-to-DVD in the US had a minor opening.  The Korean Sunday Punch opened to a weak 28,568 but it wasn't a platform release.  Real Steel and Moneyball added 23,977 and 9,767, respectively, to their totals.

Outside the Top 10:  Re-releases Gilsotteum and The Sleep Deeper Than Death sold 1,692 and 1,342 tickets; the lesbian drama Life Is Peachy sold only 877 tickets; and documentaries The Forgotten Bag and Dancing Cat added 624 and 621 tickets to their hauls.

Next Weekend:  The gangster film Too Many Villains opens.

The Korean Box Office Update is a weekly feature which provides detailed analysis of film box office sales over the Friday to Sunday period in Korea. It appears every Monday morning (GMT+1) on Modern Korean Cinema. For other weekly features, take a look at Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-upReviews and features on Korean film also appear regularly on the site. 

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Jopok Week: Marrying the Mafia IV (Ga-moon-eui Yeong-gwang 4 – Ga-moon-eui Soo-nan) 2011

To wrap up the film reviews for 'Jopok Week', what better way than to take a look at the latest Korean gangster film to hit theaters, the fourth entry in Korea’s longest running franchise (I think), the Marrying the Mafia series.  There has not been a very high-profile Korean gangster comedy since 2009’s Jeong Joon-ho starrer City of Damnation which was met with middling success.  I must admit that I can’t really remember what happened in the previous installments of this franchise bar the first one but I’m quite sure that they employed the use of some kind of story.

You see, Marrying the Mafia IV (bewilderingly subtitled Unstoppable Family) does not seem to feature any discernible story.  It is a supremely lackadaisical and episodic film that throws together a veritable panoply of minor Korean film stars in an attempt to dazzle us with its sparkling dialogue and zany set pieces.  The problem is that the script is a soporific slapdash of sketches that seems to have been cobbled together by a bunch of babbling baboons.

Earlier this week, Darcy Paquet of contributed an insightful piece entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy’ which laments that producers of gangster comedies often “don't consider them worthy of good craftsmanship.”  There may be no better example of this than this turgid continuation of an already tired franchise which doesn’t attempt to respect its audience (which was significant as it currently ranks as the 10th highest grossing Korean film of the year) with even a semblance of a narrative.

Essentially, the mother of the Marrying the Mafia clan (Kim Soo-mi), which is now running a food business instead of engaging in organized crime, goes to Japan on a business trip and brings her three vain sons and the family’s idiotic assistant along.  What ensues is a series of puzzling vignettes in a forest, a bathhouse, a gas station, a bank, and a Laundromat that don’t even follow each other in any logical fashion.  The loose thread that jumbles all these episodes together is their search for the bank robber who took their money.  They don’t really go looking for him, they just walk around with no aim in mind and bump into him numerous times in different locations.

What you do get is a lot of repetition but nothing clever.  Characters frequently see people but can’t quite recognize who they are and this is presented as a sort of running gag.  Some of the most insufferable elements are the perpetual costumes changes which of course involve men in drag.  Marrying the Mafia IV looks more like a Lady Gaga concert than a gangster film.

The film’s writers gleefully laugh in the face of plot contrivances then have the gall to have their characters reference the laziness of the writing “Dang, we’re pretty lucky.  A bathhouse when we’re dirty, and a Laundromat when we need clothes.”  Subplot (if you can call it that) with Jeong Woong-in and Kim Ji-woo is a total waste of time but is supposedly parallel with main narrative (again I use that term loosely).  The purpose of these scenes is incomprehensible and worst of all, they’re not funny.

Beside Kim Soo-mi’s matriarch, women are portrayed in a very unflattering fashion.  Hyeon Yeon plays a ditzy sexpot who throws herself at Shin Hyeon-joon’s character and prances around in skimpy outfits.  Her presence among the core group makes no sense and once again the writers reference their refusal to put together a logical story by having Kim’s character ask her why she’s even there in the first place!

Connor McMorran, in his 'Comedic Representations of Gangster Culture in Korean Cinema' piece posted earlier this week, points out that it’s “possible that in castrating the masculine aspects of gangster culture, either through male-orientated comedy or by placing the concepts in a female body with franchises such as My Wife Is a Gangster (2001-2006), it allows society to escape from the realistic threat that gangster society potentially poses.”  I would tend to agree with Connor’s assessment and thought about it throughout this film.  They are a particularly non-threatening group of tough guys that would most aptly be labeled sissies.  The biggest laugh for me was in the opening scene when Shin’s character is knitting in a board meeting, talk about a non-threatening gangster!

I can’t really recommend Marrying the Mafia IV to anyone but whether you like it or not will largely depend on what you think of the performances of the ensemble cast.  Kim is pretty good but then again she’s a first class actress, a lot of the other performances were grating for me.  I won’t lie though, I was able to enjoy some moments of this, if only a little.  Then again I can be very forgiving when it comes to Korean cinema plus I was watching a gangster film after a full day of research, writing, and editing for 'Jopok Week'.  If I was ever going to be able to find something interesting in this film, this was the right time for it.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jopok Week: The Alice in Wonderland Trajectory and Other Thoughts on Lee Chang-dong's Green Fish (Chorok mulkogi) 1997

My third review of 1997’s important Korean gangster films is actually on the first one that was released (February) during the year.  Lee Chang-dong’s Green Fish repositioned concerns of the Korean New Wave filmmakers, such as Park Kwang-su and Jang Sung-woo, into a narrative with much more commercial appeal.  After Gangster Lessons, Born to Kill, and Boss all featured in the top 10 Korean films of 1996, the gangster movie was a hot trend and Green Fish did indeed perform very strongly, landing at No. 8 the year it was released.  After penning Park Kwang-su’s To the Starry Island (1993) and A Single Spark (1995), Lee burst onto the scene with his debut, starring Han Suk-kyu, hot off the success of the previous year’s No. 1 Korean film The Gingko Bed and Song Kang-ho in a smaller role.  Both would feature later that year in No. 3.

“The refiguration of the urban space reconstitutes the familial relations that in turn destabilize the premodern values and ethics.”

Kyung Hyun Kim makes this point early in his ‘At the Edge of a Metropolis in A Fine, Windy Day and Green Fish’ chapter in his seminal volume The Remasculinization of Korean Cinema.  Lee’s film very pointedly and adroitly examines the encroaching urban crawl as it swallows Green Fish’s protagonist’s humble countryside home upon his return from conscripted military duty.  Lee presents the effect of this rapid urbanization in a very literal manner as Mak-dong’s large family unit has been shattered.  His father is dead, his mother seems to have gone a little cuckoo, his brother is a paraplegic (a precursor to Lee's third film Oasis, 2002), and his other siblings, including a young club girl and a degenerate, drunk detective, have spread apart.  The large brood cannot seem to function in the new urban and suburban space, chiefly the home of small nuclear families.

After an opening credits sequence which features a collage of pictures of Mak-dong’s family and home from years past, before Seoul loomed on the horizon, Green Fish begins with a scene on a train.  Mak-dong is returning from the army and is sticking his head out between carriages.  He looks to the left and sees an attractive woman do the same, though she is oblivious to him.  Her red shawl comes undone and floats down towards him, whipping across his face.  Back in the carriage he notices a trio of young thugs harassing her and gets involved only to get soundly beaten.  They get off at the next stop and he trots after them with a heavy object and whacks one of them across the head before scampering back to the train, but it’s already leaving so he must run away. 

Having left his bag on the train, he is now without any possessions.  This, coupled with the new landscape he comes home to, indicates an inevitable new beginning for him.  As he stands in his house’s door frame, he discards his military jacket, Lee opts to shows this using slow motion.

The train motif indicates the modernization of society, much in the same way that locomotives featured in some of the greatest Hollywood western films like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969).  Lee would employ train motifs even more prominently in his next film Peppermint Candy (1999) as his camera followed one in backwards shots in between the film's reverse chronological sequences. 

The red shawl is important because of its color, which indicates lust, love, blood, and the criminal underworld and because it covers his face. From the moment this happens, Mak-dong has begun to tread on a descending path into the underbelly of modern Seoul.  The woman is Mi-ae, the lover of Mak-dong’s future gang boss and she serves as an unwitting femme fatale.  It is his infatuation with her that ultimately leads to his downfall.

But Mi-ae is not Mak-dong’s only reason for eventually assuming a role as a low-level gangster.  His masculinity is put into question since he can’t fend a few young bullies and because at the time of his return, he is unable to prevent his mother and sister from performing demeaning duties for income.

The thugs who disrespect Mi-ae and gang up on Mak-dong represent an apathetic and displaced youth prone to violence.  Chung Doo-hwan’s autocratic regime fell in 1988 and with it a certain respect for authority.  Despite Mak-dong’s uniform which identifies him as a soldier, the youths attack him anyway.  Another example of this in the film is when Mak-dong rides in his brother’s egg truck.  After he gets pulled over for running a red light he manages to convince the cop to take a 5,000 won bribe.  He gives him a 10,000 note and the policeman agrees to go get him some change but then drives off.  Mak-dong and his brother then drive after him, swerving beside him and yelling at him to stop the car over an intercom.  It’s a funny reversal of roles but also a little alarming that they feel they can behave this way in the face of authority even if the cop is shown to be corrupt, though they are complicit in this.  Such behavior would never have been tolerated in Korea in earlier years.

For me the most successful element of the film is the staging of Mak-dong’s descent into criminal life.  I’ve already examined his initial encounter with Mi-ae but the next time he sees her it is as a reflection in a telephone booth in an unseemly part of Seoul.  He follows her through evocative red lights and past a clownish, foreboding club marketer, who pretends to shoot him in the head, into a big club.  She is a singer and appears on stage as a vision of white.  Mi-ae is the white rabbit and Mak-dong has followed her down the rabbit hole.

Later, Mak-dong gains entry into the gang world not by showing off his wits but by being violent and recalcitrant in the face of perceived authority in the form of Song Kang-ho’s hoodlum character.  Just before he is asked to do a job by the gang boss, he is in the main hall of the club.  The boss and Mi-ae enter and sit at a booth, she whispers something in his ear and he then shouts for the music to come on.  She gets up to dance to a spooky Tom Waits song and ambles in a slow, sultry fashion.  It’s a delightfully odd sequence that could nearly be part of a David Lynch film but it fits into Mak-dong’s Alice in Wonderland trajectory.

Next he is in a karaoke hall which features a scantily clad American exotic dancer performing on giant collage of TV screens.  Does this indicate that Korea’s globalization and contemporary fetish with American culture coincide with a debasement of morals?  Mak-dong goes to the bathroom and sings along to the song being performed, he stops at: “An unworthy son has this sin”.  He stares at himself in the mirror and then hangs his head before smashing his fingers with the door of a stall.  At first this seems like an act of self-mutilation borne out of guilt for the path he has embarked on. 

In the next scene he begins to harangue the patron who sang the karaoke song until he becomes annoyed enough to take a swing at him.  Mak-dong pretends that the patron has broken his fingers.  It turns out that this is his first job for the gang but he seems to revel in this self-destructiveness and willingly takes on the pain and he is later admonished by his boss for his youthful disregard for his own health.  Mak-dong’s self-destructive behavior continue when later he smashes a bottle over his head as people boo at Mi-ae on stage.

In a famous scene that was given tribute in Ha Yu’s exceptional A Dirty Carnival (2006), Mak-dong murders a rival boss in a bathroom and stuffs him in a stall.  Just before this he burns Mi-ae’s shawl.  Does he do this as he recognizes that he has become an active agent in his own debasement?

I find Mak-dong’s character arc to be brilliantly handled by director and writer Lee and performer Han.  The story itself is not very original but it is executed well and reappropriates the construct to highlight certain pressing themes in contemporaneous Korea.  Besides the few elements I’ve briefly discussed, Green Fish has an enormous amount to offer, a lot of which reveals itself on subsequent viewings.  It may not reach the heights of Lee’s later films but it stands as one of the most important works of 90s Korean film.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.

Jopok Week: Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)

For the second part of my analysis of gangster films at the Korean box office I'm going to be a little more thorough and look past the top 10 since figures become more readily available.

Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (2004-2011)


Mob films failed to crack the top 10 in 2004 but a number performed strongly nonetheless.  However, the two most successful only featured gang tropes within a myriad of generes.  To Catch a Virgin Ghost (No. 12, 1,987,380) featured hoodlums but was mainly a comedy-horror premise while A Family (No. 14, 1,932,304) starring Soo-ae was a family melodrama above all else.  Mokpo, Gangter's Paradise (No. 15, 1,795,700) is another standard Korean gangster comedy, just like the sequel Hi Dharma 2: Showdown in Seoul (No. 20, 1,272,000).  The most interesting gang film of the year was probably Im Kwon-taek's 99th film Low Life (550,000) but it failed to make much of an impression at the box office, it was a period set film that shared more with his previous The General's Son trilogy than contemporaneous gangster films.  Last was another gang comedy A Wacky Switch, which despite starring Jeong Joon-ho (previously in My Boss, My Hero and Marrying the Mafia) was a flop.

While those films that you would more readily categorize in the gangster genre did not make big impressions, a trend was beginning to emerge where films featured gangster characters or youth violence themes within more elaborate hybrids.  Ghost HouseOnce Upon a Time in High SchoolFighter in the Wind, and Arahan all made it into the top 11.


Two gangster comedies made it into the top 10 in 2005, further proof of the enduring popularity of the formula.  The second entry in the enormously successful Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 3, 5,635,266) improved on the showing of the first and Mapado (No. 8, 3,090,467) transported a gangster and a crooked cop to an island and pits them against a band of old ladies, it would later spawn a sequel.

Further down the chart, Kim Jee-woon's immersive gangster film noir A Bittersweet Life (1,271,595) was a modest hit but became a more successful player on the international scene and still one of the most popular Koran exports.  Mr. Socrates (1,261,965) and Never to Lose (989,573) also worked their way to mid-level showings.  Jang Jin's Murder, Take One and Ryoo Seung-wan's Crying Fist, which featured gangster elements, were also solid hits.


2006 was the biggest year for Korean films at the box office, led but the extraordinary success of Bong Jon-ho's The Host and a remarkably strong slate of films.  Gangster films also performed strongly and there were many of them compared to previous years.

Top of the pile was the follow-up to My Boss, My Hero (2001).  My Boss, My Teacher (No. 4, 6,105,431) nearly doubled the performance of its already very successful predecessor with Jeong Joon-ho's gang captain this time returning to school as a teacher instead of a student.  Next was the third entry in the Marrying the Mafia (No. 6, 3,464,516) franchise, which came very soon after the previous installment (1 year) which had been made three years after the first.  Though it was again very successul it would be a long wait for the next sequel.

Outside of the top 10 there was a number of very strong performers.  The Busan-set Bloody Tie (2,104,716), starring Hwang Jeong-min and Ryoo Seung-beom, played well in the spring.  Ha Yu's exemplary gang tale A Dirty Carnival (2,047,808) played to solid numbers.  Jang Jin's deligthful gang-prison comedy-drama hybrid Righteous Ties (1,744,677) successfully paired Jeong Jae-yeong and Jeong Joon-ho with a clever script.  Meanwhile the third and seemingly final entry in the My Wife Is a Gangster (1,690,465) franchise, which featured a new protagonist, performed well but fell far below the original's benchmark.

Other midlevel successes included Running Wild (1,016,152), The City of Violence (1,196,520), and No Mercy For the Rude (904,802).  However Cruel Winter Blues (570,059) and Les Formidables (361,155) failed to set the box office alight.

Special mention goes to the enormously successful Tazza: The High Rollers (No. 2, 6,847,777) which I would classify as a con artist/professional thieves film which is a bit different but it's a fine line!  All in all 2006 demonstrated that Korean audiences still had a huge thirst for gangster films, be they comedy, drama, or action.


For the third year running two gangster flicks made it into the top 10, both of which incorporated heavy romantic elements into the mix but on opposite ends of the spectrum. Miracle on 1st Street (No. 5, 2,750,457) reteams the Sex Is Zero (2002) leads Ha Ji-won and Lim Chang-jung in a romantic comedy setting with Lim as a hapless hoodlum.  Kwak Kyung-taek delivered the intense and fatalistic romantic opus A Love (No. 8, 2,123,815), which takes place within a gangster setting.

Song Kang-ho starred in of the best Korean gangster films ever made but The Show Must Go On (1,025,781), despite Mr. Song's enormous box office clout, barely managed to pass the one million admissions mark.  Slightly lower down the chart was the gangster comedy The Mafia, the Salesman (947,510), the third Boss, My Hero film, and much further down was Hotel M: Gangster's Last Draw (237,183), another gangster comedy which floundered upon release.

The romantic-gangster pairing proved to be a potent match in an otherwise difficult year for Korean film in general.  Notably, gangster comedies were absent from the upper echelons of the chart, save for Miracle of 1st Street, but this in effect signaled the end of an era.


Just a look at the above posters will give you an idea of the kind of gangster films that made their way to theaters in 2008, namely works with dark themes and storylines.  Na Hong-jin's magnificent The Chaser (No. 3, 5,071,619) featured a pimp trying to find one his girls who has been abducted by a serial killer.  While not overly concerned with gang tropes it nonetheless succeeds in both lampooning low-level, unseemly hoodlums involved in the sex trade while also showing a pretty bleak picture of their existence in an interesting spin on the comedic representation of gangsters.  The third installment in Kang Woo-suk's enormously successful Public Enemy franchise (Public Enemy Returns, No. 4, 4,300,670), starring Sol Kyung-gu, featured Jeong Jae-yeong as a vicious, cold-blooded gang boss antagonist.

Outside of the top 10 Open City (1,613,728) performed well and Jang Hoon's exceptional and fascinating Kim Ki-duk-scripted Rough Cut (1,307,688) was also a solid hit.  Further down, Truck (540,485) was a modest performer.

Just like the previous year gangster comedies did not place high on the charts though.  Unlike 2007, none seem to have been made unless you count the underperforming period comedy The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan and Ryoo Seung-wan's odd spy comedy Dachimawa Lee.  Filmmakers seemed to have moved on from the fad.


In 2009 Kim Yun-seok featured in another protagonist-antagonist film with some comic gangster tones in a relatively serious narrative.  Running Turtle (No. 5, 3,025,586) was very successful and no other film in the top 10 featured gangster elements.  Also performing well were gangster comedy City of Damnation (1,545,132) which featured Jeong Joon-ho as well as other stars from the My Boss, My Hero franchise, and the Cha Seung-won starring Secret (1,035,073).  In limited release, Yang Ik-joon's extraordinary indie Breathless (121,670) had a strong run.

Not a big year for gangster films but they would soon come back in stronger numbers.


2010 featured a number of straight gangster films but also a lot of very successful films that blended gangster conventions into larger narratives, in typical multi-genre Korean style.  The Man From Nowhere (No. 1, 6,182,772) starring Won Bin, was a huge success.  Moss (No. 3, 3,353,897) may not seem quite like a gangster film but in many ways I think it qualifies.  Ryoo Seung-wan's phenomenal The Unjust (No. 7, 2,722,403) incorporated gangster elements in a larger thriller centered around the judicial and enforcement sectors and their criminal ties.

Barely outside the top 10 was Shim Hyung-rae's atrocious American-produced The Last Godfather (2,301,293), Na Hong-jin's excellent The Yellow Sea (2,142,742), the Ryoo Seung-wan produced Sol Kyung-gu vehicle Troubleshooter (1,843,510), and Sung Hae-sung's remake of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow (1,546,420).  The Park Joon-hoon's starring romantic gangster comedy My Dear Desperado (688,832) was surprisingly effective and played better than expected.

Twilight Gangsters, and Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station 2, featuring gangster tropes had solid numbers.  Perhaps my favorite comic gangsters briefly appeared in Jang Jin's uproarious The Quiz Show Scandal.

A big year for gangsters at the Korean box office, proof that the genre is endowed with a lot of staying power.


The year is not over yet, but the latest installment in the long-running Marrying the Mafia franchise (No. 10, 2,370,074) continued to pull in strong numbers despite the recent disappearance of gangster comedy films from the box office charts.  No other gangster films performed particularly strongly but a number have appeared, including many star vehicles.  The ApprehendersHindsightPainedMoby DickI Am a Dad, and Countdown were all midlevel performers, some more disappointing than others.


Gangster films seem to be here to stay with a number of high profile films set for release in 2012 including The Thieves and Nameless Gangster and I'm sure we will continure to see them in the future.  More and more though it seems like gangster characters might feature in films but not dominate them, not necessary a bad thing.

Korean Gangster Films at the Box Office (1996-2003)

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Jopok Week: No. 3 (Neobeo 3) 1997

Though not as slick as later works like Shiri (1999) and Joint Security Area (2000), No. 3 was a presage of things to come in Korean cinema.  A vibrant film made by young people, reveling in anarchy, chaos, poetry, and philosophy. More than the other successful gangster films of 1997, No. 3 ended up being a significant breeding ground for future stars of Korean cinema.  Ask any western cinephile what Korean film stars they know and the most likely answers you’ll get are Choi Min-sik and Song Kang-ho.  Choi, as one would expect, is quite excellent but the stand-out has to be Song.  While he featured in Hong Sang-soo’s debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well the year before, it was in No. 3 that he made a name for himself. 

Rather than focussing on plot, No. 3 is more of a character piece involving gangster Tae-ju (Han Suk-kyu), his aspiring poet girlfriend Hyun-ji (Lee Mi-yeon), an aggressive prosecutor (Choi Min-sik), and a very strange hitman (Song Kang-ho).  Through a series of set pieces and discussions between characters, the film covers a huge amount of ground.  It is self-reflexive in its use of black humor, underscoring the absurdity of modern Korean society.  Much has been written and said about No 3 but I would like to draw on a coupe of points.

More than any Korean film that came before it, No 3 employs a myriad of stylistic tricks such as:  Colors; chiaroscuro lighting; composition; monochrome; music; fastforwarding; point-of-view; slow motion; freeze frame; strobe; and breaking the fourth wall (like staring into camera).  That last point in particular showcases how self-reflexive the film can be and braeaks up the narrative for the purpose of enticing the viewer to read the film differently.  The film is also entrenched is Western literature, citing authors like Virginia Wolf and even having a wispy, diminutive characters named Rimbaud, after the famed romantic French poet.  As Korea has changed throughout the 1990s, it has embraced new ideas and progressive Western thought.

One of the more interesting relationships in the film is the one between Tae-ju, the titular gangster No. 3, and Dong-pal, the aggressive, foul-mouthed public prosecutor.  They engage in a couple of discussions which explore the nature of their conflicting lifestyles.  In one, Choi criticizes people who judge a crime’s act rather than it’s perpetrator, a significant question in moral philosophy.  Regarding a crime, do we evaluate it in terms of the act, the perpetrator, or the consequence, as the utilitarians do?  I dare not get into any deep discussion on this subject, lest I expose myself as clueless charlatan but I am fascinated by this distinction. 

On the surface it seems pretty simple as we tend to judge crimes on the act themselves, but it’s easy to consider a few variations which expose the weakness of such a proposition.  Conspiracy to murder is an offence that carries a heavy sentence and does not necessarily feature any act at all if it doesn’t come to fruition.  In such a case, we judge a defendant on intent and the potential grievous harm that would have been inflicted.  Looking at the other side of the coin, it is also possible to judge an act on its consequence rather than the thought and action that led to it.  Utilitarian philosophy, chiefly a product of John Stuart Mill’s mind, and in large part responsible for today’s judiciary system, concerns itself with the aftermath of an act.  How much good came out of it versus bad?  The deliberation as to the balance of the consequence judges the severity of the crime or the benevolence of the good deed.  The most famously cited example for this is the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima during WWII.  Over 100,000 people died, the act it is responsible for the largest toll of human suffering in any single act.  However, the argument stands that countless more people were saved because of it.  Therefore judging on the consequence of the act, the bombing was just.

Dong-pal in No. 3 is part of the legal system that means that he should be principally concerned with crimes but he seems to go beyond his mandate by harassing criminals whose intentions are to commit crimes.  Normally this role is occupied by detectives which his character, with his moral philosophy, violent physicality, and foul language would seem to be a better fit for.  Late in the film Dong-pal shares a drink with Tae-su’s girlfriend Hyun-ji, who says “What I hate is not a sinner, but a sin itself.”  This is in direct opposition to Dong-pal’s philosophy but she asks him to help Tae-su and look on him as a younger brother.  Instead of vilifying the sinner, is it possible to reform him.  Essentially I think the point is to what extent is society to blame and can a figure of authority like Dong-pal prevent crimes by reforming the perpetrator and therefore removing the bad intentions?  Perhaps I’m reaching a little far with this but since the fall of the autocratic Chung Doo-hwan administration in the late 1980s, the role of authority in Korean society has changed an enormous amount.

More than just about any other Korean gangster film, No. 3 features a very strong and well fleshed-out female character in Hyun-ju.  The boss’ wife, while less clearly drawn, acts as a classic femme fatale who, as a result of her domineering affair with Rimbaud, plays a part in setting off the irreverent and chaotic climax, one of the greatest sequences in 90s Korean film.

While later Korean gangster comedies would frequently lampoon hoodlums, cutting them down in size, No. 3 does so in a more interesting fashion.  Tae-ju briefly becomes No. 2 in his gang after displaying his loyalty and wit but he is demoted after being stabbed and Ashtray takes his place.  Ashtray is a big lump of a character who brutally beats people with his namesake, which he stores down his pants, and does little else.  The violence is shocking and far from glorified and demonstrates how unseemly this facet of Korean society can be.  Darcy Paquet’s piece, posted earlier today for Jopok Week, on ‘The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy’, explores what went wrong with later gangster comedies after this promising start.

No. 3 features a number of wonderful scenes, including a great playground fight between Han Suk-kyu and Choi Min-sik, and just about every scene with Song Kang-ho who is hilarious and delightfully strange.  There’s much more to be said about this film than what I have explored but I will wrap up my discussion here.  I look forward to revisiting director and writer Song Neun-han's minor Korean gangster masterpiece in the near future.

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema.  For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office UpdateKorean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

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Jopok Week: The Rise and Fall of the Korean Gangster Comedy

By Darcy Paquet

(This essay was originally published in Korean translation in the film weekly Cine21, in January 2009.)

Han Suk-kyu in No. 3 (1997)

Sometimes I wish that Song Neung-han's No. 3 had been made four or five years later than it actually was.  I imagine it being released in 2002 or 2003, and stunning both critics and audiences with its distinctive characters and elegant staging of one gangster's epic, self-inflicted fall.  I guess it would have sold between 5 and 6 million tickets, providing a bridge between popular hits My Wife Is a Gangster and Hi, Dharma and the "well-made" auteur films of 2003: Memories of Murder, A Tale of Two Sisters, Oldboy (never mind that it would have been impossible to assemble the same cast in 2002 as in 1997).  If I could rewrite the recent history of Korean cinema, this is how I would assemble the plot:  No.3 would have saved the Korean gangster comedy.

As it was, No.3 appeared ahead of its time. Korean audiences were not as tuned in to local films in 1997, so word of mouth was slow to spread, and it did not perform very well commercially.  More importantly, the model of a commercial genre merged with a strong auteur sensibility did not really exist at that time.  Song Neung-han stands as somewhat of a lonely pioneer.  This is not to say the film did not have influence:  it helped to launch the career of Song Kang-ho, and it bears some elements in common with the films of Kim Jee-woon, Bong Joon-ho, and Choi Dong-hoon, among others.

Kang Seong-jin, Yu Oh-seung, Lee Sung-jae, and Yu Ji-tae in
Attack the Gas Station (1999)

Some critics point to No. 3 as the starting point of the Korean gangster comedy, but it seems to me that the character and attitude of the sub-genre sprung from another source:  Kim Sang-jin's Attack the Gas Station (1999).  It's not just that Attack the Gas Station was a huge commercial success that featured a prominent brawl with gangsters.  It tapped into the mindset that would provide the foundation for later works.  Anthropologist Nancy Abelmann and education professor Jung-ah Choi analyzed the film in an essay published in the anthology New Korean Cinema in 2005.  To them, the core attitude of the film is contained within the reason given for robbing the gas station:  'geunyang,’ loosely translated as "just for the hell of it."  The casual self interest and rejection of social responsibility contained within that word were representative of broader changes in Korean society, they argued.  For decades, the state had asked Koreans to subordinate the personal and the indulgent for the greater good.  'Geunyang' was a rejection of this logic.

This "geunyang" attitude also reverberated throughout the gangster comedy, re-emerging, for example, in the poster copy for the 2001 film My Boss My Hero ("That's right, more gangsters... Got a problem with that?").  It may not have been a noble sentiment, but it imparted to the films their particular energy.  Many critics considered the famous gangster comedy quartet of 2001 – Kick the Moon, My Wife is a Gangster, Hi Dharma!, My Boss My Hero – to be a shameful regression in the development of Korean cinema, but the films themselves are interesting in many ways.  My personal favorite is My Boss My Hero, for the way it combines melodrama with an ironic sense of moral outrage (given the fact that it is gangsters fighting school officials, in the name of social justice) leading up to a very Korean-style emotional climax.  Hi Dharma is structured more like a Hollywood film, even if it feels very local in its details (its setting in a Buddhist temple, Korean games, provincial accents, etc.).  Both films benefit from a good sense of comic timing and effective narrative plotting, and they are genuinely funny – an achievement that is more difficult to attain than many people assume.

Jeong Joon-ho in My Boss, My Hero (2001)

My Wife is a Gangster may not have been as well crafted as the two films mentioned above, but it remains the iconic example of Korean gangster comedy.  Perhaps the most defining characteristic of these early gangster comedies was their high-concept nature:  you could summarize the plot in a single sentence, and even that one sentence could motivate viewers to see the film.  A friend once told me about a film director from the Philippines, who after hearing just the title of My Wife is a Gangster, burst out laughing and said, "I gotta see that film!"  The movie itself could have been improved in many ways, but its central character played by Shin Eun-kyung (thrown into relief by the great supporting role by Park Chang-myun) is one of the most enduring characters of contemporary Korean cinema.

Taken individually, any of these films would have been interesting but not especially noteworthy – but the emergence of a new trend created something that was greater than the sum of its parts. Viewers who went to see a "new gangster comedy" approached it with a particular set of expectations, and directors could play off those expectations in interesting ways.  Internationally as well, the Korean gangster comedy (however briefly) become a sort of brand.  It's rare for a film industry to successfully create a specialized sub-genre of its own, but there are both commercial and creative advantages to keeping such sub-genres alive.

Park Sang-myeon and Sin Eun-kyeong in My Wife Is a Gangster (2001)

Ultimately, however, the girls high school horror film (launched in 1998 with Whispering Corridors) would prove to be far more successful at perpetuating itself than the gangster comedy.  To ensure that a specialized sub-genre lives on, it isn't necessary to produce only good films.  In fact, even a string of unremittingly bad films can keep a sub-genre alive if they attempt something new and create a sense of forward movement.

Initially, Marrying the Mafia (2002) provided some hint that the gangster comedy might enjoy a long life, but somewhere along the line, producers began to view the Korean gangster comedy as a lemon to be squeezed until all the juice was gone.  I sat through all of those "lazy sequels" that appeared in the subsequent years – films which introduced nothing new to the genre and merely cashed in on fading memories of old jokes.  If the plots of the early films could be summarized in one intriguing sentence, the plots of the later sequels could be summarized as "more of the same."  Sometimes a big hit can do more damage to the lineage of a sub-genre than a commercial flop, if millions of viewers buy tickets only to see for themselves that the creativity is gone.

Seong Ji-roo, Yoo Dong-geun, and Park Sang-wuk in
Marrying the Mafia (2002)

It's perhaps understandable that film critics might look down on the gangster comedy, but it's sadder when the people actually producing the films don't consider them worthy of good craftsmanship.  Personally, I regret the fall of the gangster comedy – I think it had a good start, and it could have evolved into a tradition worthy of pride.  But now, I think it is too late.  With deepest apologies for the sexist metaphor, the Korean gangster comedy is like a Chosun-Dynasty era yangban family that has failed to produce a son.  It will be no easier to revive it, than to start a completely new lineage.

Darcy Paquet is the founder of, and the author of New Korean Cinema: Breaking the Waves (2009).

Reviews and features on Korean film appear regularly on Modern Korean Cinema. For film news, external reviews, and box office analysis, take a look at the Korean Box Office Update, Korean Cinema News and the Weekly Review Round-up, which appear weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings (GMT+1).

To keep up with the best in Korean film you can sign up to our RSS Feed, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter.